Russian Drinking Customs

If there’s one thing Russia is known for, apart from their harsh winters, it’s their vodka and their drinking habits. At first glance it may seem like Russians drink a lot, but– well, there really isn’t a but! However, drinking customs do differ in Russian culture vs American culture.

Hospitality

In Russian culture, a table is always set with “стопки (stopki)” (shot glasses) or “рюмки (ryumki)” (wine glasses). A guest can’t be treated properly without a drink. This is true in the morning and in the evening, it’s true at parties and sometimes at business meetings, and it’s certainly as true today as it was a hundred years ago. As a guest, it is rude and downright suspicious, to refuse a drink. This is because drinking is done as a social activity, rather than a way to get drunk.

Russian Vodka

Top 4 Toasts

The culture in Russia is that a toast has to be made before the drinking starts, and is usually made by the host of a party or the head of household. It is also customary to make a toast before each shot or sip of beer/wine, although during evening parties, toasts are made often and loudly, sometimes two at a time as the night goes on! Here are some of the most common Russian toasts:

  • За здоровье! (Za zdorov’ye!) For our health!
  • Ну, за встречу! (Nu, za vstrechu!) For our meeting, then!
  • За вас! (Za vas!) For you!
  • Ну, поехали! (Nu, poyehali!) Well, let’s get started! or Cheers! (Very colloquial, not used with wine)

How to Drink Like a Russian

  1. Wait for the toast to be made. Only make your own toast if you are specifically asked to do so, and try to stick to something neutral like the first three above.
  2. Down your shot, chug a hefty amount of beer, or take a dainty sip of wine.
  3. Eat закуски (zakuski) (snacks)… You have to eat something between each toast, or you are labelled a “drunk” (this is a bad label).
  4. Repeat!

What if you don’t drink?

What can you do if you are not a drinker? One tip is that you could offer an excuse. One example:

“Я принимаю лекарство и мне нельзя пить.
(Ya prinimayu lekarstvo i mne nel’zya pit’.)”
“I’m taking some medicine, and am not allowed to drink.”

Just be ready to explain at length. Another option is to pretend you’re drinking by taking small sips. As a foreigner travelling in Russia, you aren’t expected to down each shot in one go like the Russians do (although you might get brownie points if you did).